Has the future of President Hosni Mubarak already been written out? Will the 30-year old reign of the autocratic leader now end — or will he survive, perhaps propped up by Washington where there is obvious concern about the possible loss of its most important ally in the Middle East? While the mass protests in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria, demanding the dictator step down, present the biggest challenge he has faced so far, the response has drawn still greater anger from people. Twenty-six people have been killed as police attempted to disperse demonstrators while Mubarak’s address to the nation, in which he announced he was dismissing the government, has fallen well short of the expectations of people who had hoped the aging Mubarak would himself call it a day.
The turmoil in Egypt, which has kept people across the Middle East, and many in this country as well, glued to their television sets and computer screens, drives home many lessons. The first of these is that set-ups whose survival depends almost entirely on US backing cannot hope to cling on to power forever. It is possible that the pressure exerted by the Obama administration on Mubarak to introduce reform may also have encouraged people to pour onto the streets. The stance had broken from the rhetorical calls for democracy occasionally made by the Bush government. But, of course, the main US priority is to protect its own interests. Egypt, the fourth largest recipient of American aid, is regarded as Washington’s most important ally in the Arab world. Indeed a tussle for Egyptian loyalty has been a feature of events in the region since the days of the Cold War. Even now, for all the talk on democracy and prolonged telephonic discussions between Obama and Mubarak, Washington will wish at all costs to retain its partnership with Cairo. As always, the concerns of ordinary people in that country are secondary to this.
But the mood across Egypt is angry — and rightly so, given that it has had dictatorial rule for the past 30-odd years with no significant opposition. It has been for some days, since events in Tunisia and the fall of President Ben Ali led to the beginning of similar protests in Egypt. What people want is clear. They have shouted fierce slogans calling for Mubarak to quit and attacked offices of the ruling party. So, sacking the cabinet, which the president did late on the night of January 28, or making vague promises of social reform will not do. The people of Egypt want their president to yield and resign and let the country be run in a more democratic and transparent manner. As in Tunisia, there will be a limit to the time for which they can be held off. Repressive measures, including restrictions on internet access and the disruption of mobile phone services only add to public anger. People, tired of food price inflation, unemployment and corruption have quite obviously run out of patience. The way things stand at the moment it will be hard to persuade them to return quietly to their houses. Things have accelerated too quickly for this to happen. And in this, of course, there is a message for all set-ups unwilling to put the most pressing needs of people on the top of their list of priorities.
In an address, during which he appeared calm and unruffled by unfolding events, President Mubarak spoke of the “thin line” between liberty and chaos. But the people of Egypt have spoken as well and they want a future that does not have Hosni Mubarak or any of his lackeys in it. They want greater freedom and the democracy denied to them for too long. An entire generation has grown up under Mubarak. They now seek change; a chance to have a greater say in their own future. President Mubarak’s concerns about chaos may have some basis in history and the effects that many revolutions have had on the societies that have experienced them, in terms of ensuing anarchy and violence. But the onus in this case should not lie on the people of Egypt but on Mr Mubarak — the best way to avoid all of this would be to step down and call it a day.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 30th, 2011.
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